UPDATE 1-WikiLeaks shows U.S. concern at Berlusconi-Putin tie

* Cables say policy “designed to deny Russia nothing”

* Diplomats highlight power of energy group ENI

* Berlusconi says he acted only in interests of Italy

(Adds additional comment from cables)

By James Mackenzie

ROME, Dec 2 (BestGrowthStock) – U.S. diplomats voiced concern over
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ties to Russian
leader Vladimir Putin and the grip of energy interests on Rome’s
foreign policy, according to cables made public by WikiLeaks.

The whistle-blowing website had previously given a flavour
of the U.S. view of Berlusconi, described in extracts as Putin’s
“mouthpiece”, but what appears to be a full cable from the U.S.
embassy in Rome, published on Thursday, gives a lengthier
depiction of Italy as in thrall to Moscow.

The WikiLeaks revelations have increased pressure on
Berlusconi, weakened by months of scandals and party infighting.
He faces a no-confidence vote in parliament this month which
could topple his centre-right government.

“A foreign policy designed to deny Russia nothing” is the
headline on one section of the 2009 cable, which highlighted the
powerful role of oil and gas group ENI and suggesting Berlusconi
and associates may have profited from energy deals with Russia.

The cable says Berlusconi sidelined Foreign Minister Franco
Frattini almost entirely, going directly to Putin with whom he
exchanged “lavish gifts” and considered he had a personal bond.

“The basis of the friendship is hard to determine but many
interlocutors have told us that Berlusconi believes that Putin,
a fellow ‘tycoon’, trusts Berlusconi more than any other
European leader,” the cable from Ambassador Ronald Spogli read.

Other cables have included comment on Berlusconi’s taste for
“partying hard” and the physical toll it took, prompting denials
by the prime minister’s lawyer Niccolo Ghedini, who said the
accounts were just recycled gossip from leftwing newspapers.

One referred to his ducking out of a state visit by the King
of Jordan, giving the impression “he was husbanding his flagging
energies for a blow-out party at Putin’s private dacha”.

Spogli’s cable said Berlusconi’s aides were reluctant to
challenge him but even some members of his own PDL party had
expressed concern over his “giddiness about Putin”.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has this week gone
out of her way to placate Berlusconi. In an earlier cable a U.S.
diplomat said he was dismissed by many as “feckless, vain and
ineffective as a modern European leader”.

NO BETTER FRIEND

On the sidelines of a summit meeting in Kazakhstan on
Wednesday, Clinton said: “We have no better friend.”

But the leaked document shows serious concern that
Berlusconi, who irritated Washington with his support for Moscow
during the 2008 Georgian war, was working “overtime” within the
European Union on Moscow’s behalf.

“His overwhelming desire is to remain in Putin’s good
graces, and he has frequently voiced opinions and declarations
that have been passed to him directly by Putin,” the cable said.

Berlusconi, who has been in Kazakhstan for a meeting of the
Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said
Italy’s relationship with the United States would not be
affected by the reports and he denied any improper behaviour.

“The United States knows very well that I have absolutely no
interests with any other country, that there are no personal
interests at all but that I have only acted with the interests
of Italians and my country at heart,” he was quoted by Italian
news agency ANSA as saying.

Leaked cables have highlighted the role allegedly played by
Valentino Valentini, a Russian-speaking member of parliament who
operated as Berlusconi’s “key man on Russia”.

“What he does in Moscow during his frequent visits is
unclear but he is widely rumoured to be looking after
Berlusconi’s business interests in Russia,” one said.

In a statement, Valentini dismissed the leaks as “corridor
chatter” which reflected the partial views of one ambassador.

“In reality, there is nothing mysterious about the
relationship between Russia and Italy as I have often had the
opportunity to tell Ambassador Spogli directly,” he said.

As well as the comments on Berlusconi, the cable highlights
the important role played in Italian foreign policy by ENI,
whose view of the European energy situation “was disturbingly
similar to that of (Russian gas giant) Gazprom and the Kremlin”.

It said ENI wielded immense political power and ran a
lobbying effort that was better funded than most government
offices and which overshadowed the Foreign Ministry.

“One member of the opposition centre-left PD party told
political officers that ENI’s presence in Russia exceeds that of
Italy’s understaffed embassy,” it said.

ENI chief executive Paolo Scaroni appeared underwhelmed by
the reports. “Who’d have guessed I’d be talking about these
things?” he told reporters at the margins of a conference.
(Additional reporting by Francesca Piscioneri; editing by Barry
Moody and Janet Lawrence)

UPDATE 1-WikiLeaks shows U.S. concern at Berlusconi-Putin tie